It’s been over 35 years since Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck published The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age. Lindbeck wrote The Nature of Doctrine as an attempt to grapple with the incommensurability of intra-Christian division, and to chart a path forward in ecumenical understanding amongst churches.

The problem, as Lindbeck sees it, is that some Christian traditions emphasize the cognitive aspects of doctrine, focusing on the way that doctrine is meant to be viewed as a series of objective truth claims about reality. On the other hand, other Christian traditions see doctrine as “noninformative and nondiscursive symbols of inner feelings, attitudes, or existential orientations.” Lindbeck calls the adherents to the former view, “cognitive-propositionalists” and adherents to the latter, “experiential-expressivists.”

If we take a Christian doctrinal claim such as “Jesus is Lord” for example, the competing approaches to doctrine are made plain. On the one hand, cognitive-propositionalists would see this as an affirmation about Jesus’s authority over the cosmos, while experiential-expressivists would say that such as claim is symbol of their feelings about the way that the world is held together by the Divine, or something to this effect.

When it comes to doctrine, then, though Christians might be mouthing the semantic content, the meaning they intend with these words might be very different. Lindbeck’s solution is to offer another way for viewing doctrine, seeing it as “language-like” and the specific doctrinal points as forming a kind of “grammar” for how to talk of God. Doctrine ceases to be at its core a proposition that is true or false, or a symbol of some inner experience (though it might retain elements of both) but rather set rules for thinking about God. Lindbeck calls this third approach to doctrine a “cultural-linguistic” approach.

While Lindbeck’s work has been generative and fruitful in Christian theology, it also provides a fresh way of understanding some of the intractable and highly-charged cultural discussion in the English-speaking West today. Two especially pressing issues are questions around race and gender. Though Lindbeck’s typology has been applied to doctrine, it can also be applied to significant and polarizing issues and events that have become cultural touchstones. In the past year or so, these have included the murder of George Floyd, the public debate around gender especially as it relates to transgender rights, the storming of the Capitol Building, and the phenomenon of cancel-culture.

When addressing each of these issues or events, there is tendency to evaluate them as either particular propositional statements about society that must be evaluated empirically, in step with Lindbeck’s description of “cognitive-propositionalism” or as symbolic outlets of inner experiences and feelings, in step with with Lindbeck’s “experiential-expressivist” framework.

Those who fall into the experiential-expressivist model want to address events as symbols of injustice that require societal action. For example, the murder of George Floyd is not an isolated incident, nor should it be evaluated empirically along with other race-related deaths. To even think along these lines is to reduce and belittle the experiential-expressivist conclusion that symbolically speaking, Floyd’s unjust death represents all of the evils of racism in the world.

The same might be said about the recent debates around conversion therapy in Canada or the furor surrounding hormone therapy in the United Kingdom, of which Keira Bell has become a representative. In either instance, those who are asking for empirical, evidence-based decisions are confronted by a storm of those who fit within Lindbeck’s experiential-expressivist framework asking for progressive change. Reference to scientific or medical evidence in these cases is dismissed with the wave of a hand because it is perceived to be coming from an insensitive and patriarchal structure that, by way of asking for evidence, betrays its own prejudice and insufficiency.

Of course, anyone who wants to weigh the facts and look for empirical evidence to suggest that racism is prevalent or that there are positive or negative effects to practices such as conversion therapy or hormone treatments for minors are right to critique the resistance to this. Moreover, empirical thinkers find themselves frustrated not because their opponents on a given issue are coming to different conclusions. Rather, they are frustrated because many hard-leaning progressives no longer agree with them on what counts as evidence.

In terms of Lindbeck’s model, if it were applied to civil discourse, those who can be best described as experiential-expressivists care less about the empirical facts and more about their inner experience and that of others. On the other hand, those who are most identified by the cognitive-propositionalist framework care little for feelings and reports of experience but want to look at measurable data whether it be cases of racist violence or concrete harm due to conversion therapy or hormone therapy, for instance.

This creates an inevitable stalemate, where both groups use competing sets of data to make sense of the world. And while I sympathize with the latter, cognitive-propositional approach, this does nothing to bridge the void, and for someone to cross over, or to “change sides,” if you will, requires nothing less than an intellectual conversion. Moreover, there are some problems with assumptions about facts and empiricism that cognitive-propositionalists make, and it is worth attending to their critiques.

Cognitive-propositionalists believe that they see reality as it exists. While feelings and prejudices are inevitable, they can be consciously set aside as one browses the facts on any given issue, and assuming one has access to the right amount of knowledge, one can come to a certain conclusion about any given problem. Think along the lines of the rhetoric of Ben Shapiro and his quip (and book), “Facts don’t care about your feelings”, or Jordan Peterson’s exhortations to aim for “higher goods” rather than stretching for goals that provide quick hits of emotional pleasure.

It’s possible for there to remain genuine disputes amongst cognitive-propositionalists about the direction the evidence is pointing, because they are in essence playing by the same rules. For example, one can look at reports of violence against visible minorities by police officers and quibble about the nature of such violence and whether or not it is disproportionate, but one is looking at the same data sets.

The now-typical rebuttal to this mode of reasoning is to say that it is captive to the oppressive and patriarchal history of the West. The solution that progressive critics offer are alternative modes of knowing, trumpeting the voices of Indigenous people, or Queer folks, or anyone coming from some other historically marginalized perspective. The cognitive-propositionalist response to this is to double down with evidence, usually drawn from physical or social sciences, to support their views. The problem is that the cognitive-propositionalist has not actually engaged the critique from the experiential-expressivist, which is not an attack on the evidence in question, but an attack on the former’s first principles. The critic doubts whether or not issues of race and genzder are best answered by scientific inquiry, and instead suggests that these touch on something that goes beyond outwardly observable phenomena.

This leaves the cognitive-propositionalist vulnerable. If they are religious (in a traditional sense), then it forces them to reaffirm dogmatic claims drawn from Scripture or Church teaching, with Protestants typically opting for the former and Catholics the latter. This might look like an appeal to Genesis 1:27, “male and female he created them,” or Jesus’s reassertion of the same in Matthew 19:14. These texts carry a prescriptive weight that bolsters the cognitive-propositionalists’ views. Granted, this is somewhat of a caricature of a certain kind of Christian response, but this “common-sense” approach to Scripture retains a popular currency.

If cognitive-propositionalists are not people of faith, however, or if they keep religious discourse on the sidelines of their cultural commentary, progressive critiques force them to simply reassert their position that “facts matter” or “biology exists” or some other truism that their ideological opponent will not accept. This is not an argument for why empiricism or evidence-based decision making are correct, only a restatement of their first principles, lurking behind it is often some form of belief in the inviolability of the scientific method.

The scientific method is an empirical method by which scientific hypotheses can be tested by focusing on a particular phenomenon and by measuring observable qualities. One might go further to make deductions based on one’s finding and perhaps create a theory to account for what one has observed.

This all makes sense during scientific experimentation or in a medical setting, like determining the source of an ailment that is causing a patient to vomit, for instance. One might examine the patient for signs of ill-health, asking about their diet over the past week, or inquire about their family history and so forth. This could go on until a physician terms the most likely cause of the vomiting, and then she might create a theory as to why it has occurred and how it could be treated going forward.

In a situation like this, however, it is unlikely a physician will ask about the patient’s spiritual beliefs or their sense of purpose in life. These are thought to be unrelated to the question at hand – in this case vomiting – because they do not directly impinge upon the ailment. With each instance of inquiry, to apply the scientific method, one must begin by bracketing out factors that are unrelated to the experiment at hand.

It’s not that spiritual beliefs or one’s sense of purpose do not exist because they cannot be physically observed in any direct way, only that the tool in question – the scientific method – is not fitted to account for spiritual or moral inquiry.

Take, for example, Michael Shermer’s defence of the scientific method (more or less) as the universal tool for determining what is and is not true. He goes beyond its use in scientific experimentation and applies it to literally every question one might ask (save for what existed before the beginning of the universe).

Shermer does concede that folks may treat the question of the existence of God without the scientific method, but he argues

They are right to do so as long as the particular claim in question cannot—even in principle—be examined by science. But what might that include? Most religious claims are testable, such as prayer positively influencing healing. In this case, controlled experiments to date show no difference between prayed-for and not-prayed-for patients. And beyond such controlled research, why does God only seem to heal illnesses that often go away on their own? What would compel me to believe would be something unequivocal, such as if an amputee grew a new limb. Amphibians can do it. Surely an omnipotent deity could do it. Many Iraqi War vets eagerly await divine action.

Besides Shermer’s impoverished, mechanized description of prayer, he fails to recognize that questions of ethics, meaning, and metaphysics cannot be examined by science. He misses the real distinction between metaphysics and the physical sciences. It’s not clear how any classical theism could be examined by science, nor most of Christian belief, save for the historical claims about Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

The scientific method, then, becomes a problem for cognitive-propositionalists like Shermer when it becomes more than a theoretical tool and it becomes a principle for life. When the scientific method is invoked as an all-encompassing metaphysics, it reduces all of life to what is observable, measurable, and falsifiable. To this view, what cannot be perceived cannot exist; but such a belief is an object of faith, not the result of scientific inquiry. The scientific method works well when we are dealing with situations that specifically call for the analysis of observable data, as in the case of the proportion of police violence against visible minorities, but it is useless when asking question that deal with the theological, metaphysical, or the value of the human person.

For instance, the scientific method is useless when determining the nature of God, or the purpose of human life. The apparatus is not meant to be applied to such questions as the ground of being, how classical theism sees God, nor to the teleological questions about human existence. At best, some version of the scientific method can be applied in these cases in a hypothetical sense, for example: “If we suppose God does not exists, what is the end of human life?” or, “Supposing humans are merely biological organisms, what do we make their religious practices?” In each case, the scientific method is unable to lead us to certainty about our suppositions because it is a method of inquiry rather than a source of knowledge about the Divine.

This comes into play when thinking about the politics of policing or hormonal therapy, because the way one approaches these issues does not so much depend on belief in the Divine (the more recent convention in the West is to assume a functional atheism in public discourse, which is, like the scientific method, only a means of inquiry rather than a metaphysics), but it does raise larger questions about equality and/or justice (the belief that police violence, however regrettable, ought to be evenly distributed to people of all races otherwise an injustice exists – this belief presumably comes from somewhere) or teleology (that one’s authentic-self is untethered from biology or not, that the good of realizing one’s authentic self surpasses the goods of physical integrity, familial and social implications, and so on). Both equality and teleology however are linked to one’s religious beliefs.

If God exists, and the nature of the God in question changes the basis on which we understand equality. “Equality under God” is one way of thinking about this, but so is “equality as a social contract,” as well as “inequality as a natural phenomenon.” Equality under God might provide the basis for assuming that violence should be evenly distributed, if it exists at all, while pointing to the inequality in the natural world might be the basis on which we assume violence should be concentrated on the weakest and most vulnerable.

Teleology and other questions connecting to human purpose and destiny or the lack thereof are highly dependent on whether or not humans are created beings, or simply chance occurrences in a chance cosmos. To put it more succinctly, the difference may lay in whether or not human purpose is discovered or constructed.

There is a second element to the critique of cognitive-propositionalists that is worth attending to. The accusation of prejudice and privilege to those who have favoured empirical reasoning and evidence-based decision making suggests that because traditional Western institutions have been marred by patriarchy and its squelching of alternative views, these are no longer the only legitimate means of reasoning.

This critique is misguided not because it is wrong, but because it does not go far enough.

On the one hand, those making the critique are shaped by the same culture and patriarchal institutions that they are criticizing. If the critique is to apply it must be applied levelly to all who share in the heritage of the West, even those who champion “alternative ways of knowing” or fringe perspectives because they too are a product of the West. No one must be permitted to think unless they are free from the stain of the West. And since each person has an inescapable history tethered to a particular culture, there is no one to cast the first stone.

Furthermore, and this is where George Lindbeck is helpful once again for understanding our cultural moment, both cognitive-propositionalists and experiential-expressivists are entering the conversations about race or gender through the mediation of language (English in our case). This raises important questions about the nature of language. Is language neutral? Or does language have the same moral baggage as our culture? If the latter is the case, then is there any way to be truly free from the patriarchy of the West while still living with and thinking with its language? I don’t think so. Another language, perhaps Chinese, might give one a different perspective, but it also is mired in with a different set of cultural baggage. Language holds us all in its grasp, and there is no escaping it.

Lindbeck uses some interesting examples in his own discussion of language to show that language does not only convey ideas but shapes them. He points to the examples of some tribal languages that do not differentiate between blue and green, so that, though members of the culture are physiologically able to see colour, they cannot conceptualize it because their language gives no articulation to the difference (37). We see only what we can articulate, beyond brute impulses. While mathematics might be a pure, unstained language, even they have a history. Furthermore, much of scientific discourse is cloaked in fantastic imagery and morally freighted terms. Even the great strides taken by Darwin and the theory of natural selection rely on anthropomorphic descriptions in which nature is a being, “selecting,” as only one with a will can.

Lindbeck’s response to the theological conundrum he was approaching was to view doctrine not merely as statements of fact or articulations of some deeply felt experience, but rather as a kind of grammar for thinking like a Christian. This insight is helpful in our own cultural moment perhaps as a recognition that it’s not so much that the left and the right or the experiential-expressivist and the cognitive-propositionalist are approaching questions or race and gender on different ideological grounds, but that they are rather speaking two different languages, and these two different languages shape their view of reality. Nobody is accessing these realities without language, but this does not mean that there are not better or worse ways for approaching it.

Languages are not “good” or “bad” in a moral sense, but some languages do have more explanatory power than others. For instance, if a language leaves one unable to grasp and articulate certain facts that one speaking from another language can, it is worth learning. Conversely, if a language has the conceptual tools to articulate an experience that one language does not, it is worth learning. One example might be the superiority of Greek over English when describing the phenomena of love, as C. S. Lewis’s classic, The Four Loves lays out. While Greek allows us to think about four different kinds of love (storge, philia, eros, and agape) with their own shades of meaning, English has less to offer. By seeing the concept of love through Greek, we expand our comprehension of what we mean, and clarify the term as we use it.

Learning another language takes time, and while taking a loan word from another language may be helpful, it is only by becoming habituated to and fluent in a second language that we can really grasp its power. If we think of the poles in our political discourse as two distinct languages, we might be able to communicate bidirectionally by taking up the discipline of learning the civil language of our neighbour. By becoming bilingual in this sense, we might learn not only to see from the other’s point of view, but to make sure our disagreements are actually that, rather than the result of us isolating ourselves from others.

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Posted by Cole Hartin

Cole Hartin is an Anglican priest serving in New Brunswick, Canada, where he lives with his wife and three sons. He has a PhD in theological studies from Wycliffe College and the University of Toronto. He is currently writing a book on nineteenth-century Anglican biblical interpretation.

One Comment

  1. “The accusation of prejudice and privilege to those who have favoured empirical reasoning and evidence-based decision making suggests that because traditional Western institutions have been marred by patriarchy and its squelching of alternative views, these are no longer the only legitimate means of reasoning.”
    This may be an accurate description of the position of many in the experiential-expressivists camp, but it makes the critique of prejudice and privilege self-defeating to cognitive-propositionalists. The problem to address is not the process of reasoning but the socialized and institutionalized bias that makes fact finding flawed. Not only are people considering police violence not looking at the same data sets, the processes that generate the data sets are biased. Cognitive-propositionalists are profound nominalists who will acknowledge “bad apples” but hold that systemic structures are ontologically ruled out.


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